July 6, 2015
(ANTIMEDIA) According to a new in-depth report by the Washington Post, police kill a mentally ill person every 36 hours in America. Mentally ill individuals make up 25% of all people killed by police this year.
The Post, which has tracked the number of people killed by police since the beginning of 2015, found that 124 out of 462 people shot since January suffered various mental afflictions, from PTSD to schizophrenia and suicidal tendencies (other figures on 2015 police killings have already passed 500).
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said, “This a national crisis…We have to get American police to rethink how they handle encounters with the mentally ill. Training has to change.” His independent research firm works to develop solutions to various police shortcomings.
It is important to note that many of the mentally ill victims were armed when police approached them. But, the Post notes, “…in most cases, the police officers who shot them were not responding to reports of a crime. More often, the police officers were called by relatives, neighbors or other bystanders worried that a mentally fragile person was behaving erratically, reports show.”
While 9 in 10 victims were armed, mentally ill people were far more likely than other groups to yield a weapon less lethal than a firearm. Six carried toy guns while 3 in 10 carried a blade such as a knife or machete—which, according to the FBI, have been responsible for no more than three police deaths in the last decade. One held a B.B. gun, at least one had a gun carrying blanks, and one man long-afflicted with depression and drug addiction held a cell phone, eliciting the common police justification that officers believed he had a gun.
Experts and police alike attribute the high proportion of mentally ill deaths to a severe lack of police training. As the Post reported,
“Although new recruits typically spend nearly 60 hours learning to handle a gun, according to a recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, they receive only eight hours of training to de-escalate tense situations and eight hours learning strategies for handling the mentally ill.”
As a result, officers often deal with mentally ill subjects using techniques that exacerbate the situation. Where a police officer might sternly shout commands at a “normal” person, doing so is “like pouring gasoline on a fire when you do that with the mentally ill,” said Ron Honberg, policy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
While experts agree that more training is needed, it remains that officers, to be fair, are often dispatched to situations without full (or any) information on the crisis. Further, as funding for mental health services falls short, they are tasked with picking up the slack—a risky responsibility for officers’ whose job it is to use violence.
They are so reliable at killing, in fact, that several of the mentally ill killed by officers approached them with the intent of being shot. Officers delivered.
Overall, the victims’ ages ranged from 15 to 86. Those killed include a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran with PTSD and a teenage girl with bi-polar disorder, whose death attracted considerable attention because it took three officers to subdue her. Getting the girl “under control” amounted to shooting her because she had a knife (which, as noted, is a low-risk weapon for officers to encounter). Her father maintains she should still be alive—that “She was asking for help, and she was failed when that officer failed to take control of the situation. . . . This shouldn’t have ended this way.”
Others killed included multiple Afghanistan veterans suffering from PTSD and a 25-year-old black man with schizophrenia. The majority of victims were white, male, armed, and died close to home. Many of the victims’ families dispute the official stories, which typically claim officers’ lives were in danger.
While increased training is a necessary improvement, it cannot solve the more widespread problem of violent police forces. For now, it seems the best option for keeping mentally ill individuals alive is abandoning the long-held notion that calling the police is an act of compassion.
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